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UN Says Plight Of Many Displaced Iraqis Worsens

A woman makes bread at a camp for internally displaced Iraqis in central Baghdad. (file photo)
By all reports, the security situation across Iraq has improved over the past two years.

But as it has, the plight has worsened of many people who previously fled to other parts of Iraq to escape the violence.

The UN refugee agency reported this week that the number of Iraqis living in squatters' camps -- the last stop for desperate families -- is now half a million.

That represents an increase of 25 percent in the past year, or about 100,000 people more than before.

The UNHCR says that many of the new squatters are internally displaced persons (IDPs) who may once have been able to rent rooms but now have run out of resources.

"The situation of many IDPs is deteriorating, not on the security front, where it has stabilized in many areas, but [due to] the lack of access to employment, the lack of access to water, the lack of access to education, lack of land title, lack of documentation, problems with distribution of the [food rations]," Andrew Harper, head of the Iraq support unit for the UNHCR, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. "So, people in many instances are becoming increasingly vulnerable and you may have had people who are renting before who no longer can afford the rent and so they also may have had no choice but to move into public buildings or squat in certain locations."

Of the half million people in squatters' camps, an estimated 260,000 are in Baghdad.

Like other such encampments across Iraq, the sites are often ad hoc settlements of previously vacant buildings that were looted after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"There are no official IDP camps," Harper says. "They are very ad hoc collections of buildings, families may have occupied public buildings -- as you are probably aware in Iraq there are a lot of military and government installations which were looted after the fall of the previous regime and lay vacant, and so these types of complexes now accommodate tens of thousands of families."

The rise in the proportion of IDPs now living in desperate conditions comes as many others once displaced by fighting in Iraq have been able to return home with the improving security in the country.

The UNHCR estimates the number of returnees in the hundreds of thousands. But the precise number is impossible to know because many local government agencies have kept poor track of the figures.

Harper says that for this reason, the official number of displaced persons in Iraq remains at 1.5 million -- the level it reached at the height of sectarian violence in the country -- even though that figure is inaccurate.

"The number 1.5 [million] is probably very high. It is an overestimation," Harper says. "What often happens is that you have a high point in displacement figures but then authorities often forget to reduce the figures when people start going back."

He says that "at least a couple of hundred thousand Iraqis, probably many more," have returned to their homeland but are not reflected in the official figure.

As the UNHCR warns this week of the worsening situation of those who remain displaced, the agency is seeking to highlight the necessity for donors to continue supporting Iraqi IDPs for months or even years to come.

Harper says there is a danger that rising donor fatigue, mixed with hopes the Iraqi government can use its oil revenues to help the IDPs, could leave many IDPs increasingly vulnerable.

"We appreciate that Iraq in the future will have oil revenues coming on line but at the moment it doesn't," Harper says. "But Iraq still needs assistance and the needs and challenges that it is confronting at the moment remain enormous."

Diar Bamrni is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq